PARIS— A priest in a town southeast of Paris was hit with sexual assault and child pornography charges after a 22-year-old former choirboy accused him of abuse, and a police search found pictures of a young parishioner in his home, a prosecutor said.
The new case added to a wave of sexual abuse allegations made by church members across Europe in recent weeks that have put the Vatican on the defensive and fueled a growing sense of crisis. Some of the cases have raised questions about whether Joseph Ratzinger acted aggressively enough against priests under his supervision as an archbishop and cardinal before he became Pope Benedict XVI.
French bishops said in a letter to the pope Friday that they were ashamed of the "abominable acts" of child sexual abuse by priests. In another mea culpa, a conservative religious order that had enjoyed the favor of John Paul II apologized to victims of sexual abuse by its founder.
The new French probe was opened after the 22-year-old man told authorities that he had been assaulted by the priest as an adult, the prosecutor of Troyes, Alex Perrin, said Friday.
Police searched the priest's home and found two or three pornographic photos of a child parishioner in Marcilly-le-Hayer, the prosecutor said by telephone.
"This news is upsetting to everyone," the bishop of Troyes, Marc Stenger, wrote in a statement published in Friday in the local paper, L'Est- Eclair. But, he said, "this must not be the hour of judgment and condemnation. We must wait to know the truth."
The bishop asked the priest to be moved elsewhere during the probe, according to the prosecutor, who said the investigation could take several months.
Perrin said the priest was detained Wednesday for questioning. Preliminary charges of "sexual assault" and "illegal possession of images characteristic of child pornography," were issued Friday, opening the way for a formal investigation. The priest was freed after questioning, but ordered to receive treatment and forbidden any contact with minors, Perrin said.
The former choirboy has said he contacted the priest in November over the Internet and went to visit the clergyman, who then assaulted him, according to an official close to the investigation, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the case.
Perrin was not authorized to name the priest because of the secrecy that covers investigations in France.
Such cases involving priests "are not something common in the L'Aube region" where Marcilly-le-Hayer is located, Perrin said, adding that this was the first time in his memory such an affair had come to light.
The letter to Benedict from French bishops, and a Web site statement by the Legionaries of Christ both contained expressions of solidarity toward Benedict for his handling of abuse cases.
French bishops said in their letter to Benedict that they are ashamed of priests who molested and raped children. The bishops said these "abominable acts" had "disfigured the church, wounded Christian communities and cast suspicion on all the members of the clergy."
But they also expressed solidarity with Benedict, saying the sexual abuse scandals were "being used in a campaign to attack you personally."
Leaders of the Legionaries of Christ said that at first they couldn't believe the accusations against the late Mexican prelate Marcial Maciel, including molestation of seminarians and that he had a long relationship with a woman and fathered a daughter with her.
But they said it was thanks to an investigation by the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, under the direction of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Benedict, that they were convinced the allegations were true.
Before becoming cardinal, Benedict was the top authority in the Munich archdiocese in his German homeland.
The New York Times reported Friday that Ratzinger, when archbishop, was copied in on a memo about a Munich archdiocese decision to return a priest in therapy for pedophilia to pastoral work.
Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi quickly reiterated the Vatican's insistence that Benedict didn't know about the decision.
"Yet again speculation," headlined a front page article in Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano about the Times piece.
Lombardi circulated a statement issued by the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising stating that the decision to return the priest to pastoral work was made by the vicar general of that time, Rev. Gerhard Gruber.
Gruber, now retired, told The Associated Press on Friday that he was warned about the man and consulted with several people to weigh the risk, but never mentioned this to then-Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger.
Gruber said in a telephone interview from Munich that the psychiatrist who treated the Rev. Peter Hullermann in Munich from 1980 through 1992 warned him the priest was a "risk".
"Of course he warned me, he pointed out the risk," Gruber said.
"However, I decided I would take the risk" and send Hullermann, who had a record of child abuse, back to pastoral work in Munich congregations, Gruber said.
The idea was to give Hullermann "something to do," Gruber said.
In addition to talking to Hullermann's psychiatrist several times, Gruber said he consulted with the vicar general of Hullermann's home diocese in Essen, but never with Ratzinger.
"I did not talk to the Archbishop, as I have said before," he said.
He also said he did not know of the memo referred to in the New York Times story.
"I cannot remember having written such a letter," he said. (AP)